Mental HealthSocial Issues

Stigma: What It Is & Why We Have It

Three out of four people with mental illness report that they have experienced mental health stigma. After all, mental illness has a wide range of effects on people’s health, careers and relationships . Stigma is often associated with negative stereotypes such as depicting people with mental health as  dangerous, unpredictable, or generally incompetent. This could potentially lead to discrimination and prejudice in both the workplace and social life. In medical settings, negative stereotypes might also affect how health-care providers treat their patients. Not only can stigma come from those around you, but it can also be induced by oneself. This is called self-stigma. self-stigma can hinder the recovery of those living with a mental illness. It is often described as one’s belief that they are damaged because of their illness.

There is also structural-stigma, which is stigma from social and institutional policies and practices. These are large-scale barriers to mental health care that undermine the opportunities for people to seek help. Lack of funding for mental health research and care as well as how mental health history is used in legal proceedings such as in custody cases, all present structural reasons that might discourage people to seek mental health treatment. Cultural factors can also have a heavy influence on certain types of behaviors that are thought to violate social norms. Social networks can also have a tremendous impact on people’s decisions to pursue treatment, with the purpose of either to diminish feelings of stigma or to encourage care seeking. Since the impact of knowledge, culture, and networks have a huge influence on the decision to access care, many public health and policy initiatives are implemented to educate people about mental health to combat the stereotypes associated with mental health that could limit access to care. 

The main reason why mental health stigma exists is because media has a tremendous influence on public attitude. The majority of news stories about mental health that sensationalize violent acts become headline news while there are fewer articles that feature stories of recovery or positive news. The media’s negative portrayal of mental health can contribute to the development of fear and misunderstanding of these individuals. These are some of the many significant consequences as a result of public misperception.

The question right now is: What can you do to stop stigma? The Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) developed the “STOP” criteria to recognize the actions and attitudes related to mental health stigma. The criteria says: 

  • Stereotypes people with mental health conditions (that is, assumes they are all alike rather than individuals)
  • Trivializes or belittles people with mental health conditions and/or the condition itself
  • Offends people with mental health conditions by insulting them
  • Patronizes people with mental health conditions by treating them as if they were not as good as other people

Stigma: What It Is & Why We Have It

The main way to combat the stigma surrounding mental illness is to start with yourself. Put some thought into your choice of words. Be sensitive when you interact with people with mental illness. It is always good to draw attention to the issue of stigma and raise awareness. By doing this, a huge difference can be made for people who are suffering of stigma. It encourages them to seek help and creates a more inclusive environment for people with mental illness. With these suggestions in mind, you can make a difference.



  • Lawrence Cheung

    Lawrence Cheung is a writer at INKspire. He's currently an undergrad student in Carleton University's Political Science Program.

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